The masks of God: Oriental Mythology

by Joseph Campbell

Book, 1976



Call number


Call number



New York : Penguin Books, 1976.

Original publication date


Physical description

20 cm

Local notes

In this second volume of The Masks of God — Joseph Campbell's major work of comparative mythology — the pre-emimenent mythologist looks at Asian mythology as it developed over the course of five thousand years into the distinctive religions of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, and Japan.

The Masks of God is a four-volume study of world religion and myth that stands as one of Joseph Campbell's masterworks. On completing it, he wrote: Its main result for me has been the confirmation of a thought I have long and faithfully entertained: of the unity of the race of man, not only in its biology, but also in its spiritual history, which has everywhere unfolded in the manner of a single symphony, with its themes announced, developed, amplified and turned about, distorted, reasserted, and today, in a grand fortissimo of all sections sounding together, irrestibly advancing to some kind of mighty climax, out of which the next great movement will emerge.

This new digital edition, part of the Collected Works of Joseph Campbell series, includes over forty new illustrations.

(Comparative Mythology: Ancient Egypt, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism)

User reviews

LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
From the beginning I liked Oriental Mythology quite a bit more than the first volume Primitive Mythology, even if like that first book, it could be rather dry and scholarly and somewhat rambling in its arguments. I think part of that is I felt I could trust his arguments more. So much of Primitive Mythology is based on archeological finds it made me continually wonder how many of his "facts" had been overtaken by new discoveries in the over 50 years that passed since the 1959 publication of that first volume. In this volume, however, covering the mythologies of Egypt, India, China and Japan he's on more solid ground, with written scripture forming the basis of his study rather than archeological finds or the fluid rituals of indigenous peoples.

I found the first part of this book comparing and contrasting Oriental (Hindu, Buddhist) and Occidental (Judeo-Christo-Muslim and Classical Greek) mythologies fascinating and illuminating. He sees the two cultures, though joined at the root, "branching off" into divergent and distinctive worldviews. What is key in oriental theology Campbell believes, is the "myth of eternal return" i.e. reincarnation until and unless you can break through the unending cycle to find the divinity within. He further sees a distinction between Hinduism ("let it go") and Far Eastern Buddhism ("let it come."). Western mythologies in contrast have a vision of creation/fall/restoration in a cosmic conflict where sides must be chosen. The role of the individual in the two different worldviews are also very different. Campbell states of the Western view:

Not life as a good soldier, but life as a developed, unique individual, is the ideal. And we shall search the Orient in vain for anything quite comparable. There the ideal, on the contrary, is the quenching, not the development, of ego.

I'm not sure I'd describe the Western tradition as so different in those terms. Certainly the Christian mystical and monastic tradition emphasizes self-sacrifice, renunciation of the world and quenching of the ego as well. Although Campbell also mentions the idea of another strain in Western mythology distinct from the monotheistic "People of the Book." The Greek idea of theology as poetry and play rather than dogmatic scripture, and the Greeks in the conflict between Man and God are on Man's side--as encapsulated in the myth of Prometheus. I have to admit, if I'm aligned with any mythological school as described in the book, it's this rebellious one I find most attractive, and it's an interesting way of looking at the various mythologies. I'm curious how he'll further develop those themes in the next volume, Occidental Mythology.

But most fascinating was Campbell's demonstrations of the connections between and elucidations of Asian religions, mythology and philosophy. I don't think I've yet squeezed all I can out of his survey of Indian, Chinese and Japanese history and culture. I'll need to reread this book someday after further reading on the subject. Parts were so dry I admit I did some judicious skimming, and wished to skim more. Yet it's rare that I read a book that both makes me understand better other ideas and books I've come across and leaves me hungry for more. In the course of reading this book I put together for myself a 14-page timeline of history and was busy each night after reading chapters of Oriental Mythology googling articles on Indian and Chinese history and Hinduism and Buddhism and was browsing the Religion and History section of my neighborhood bookstore recently looking for more to read on the subjects Campbell touched upon. The book made me want to reread Lao-Tzu and Confucius and delve into Sanskrit literature--hopefully after reading Oriental Mythology with more understanding. Right to the last sentence Campbell was offering up piercing insights.
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LibraryThing member ghneumann
After examining the mythology of "primitive" societies in his previous volume, here Joseph Campbell turns his examination of mythology to the East, the Orient. He begins with ancient Egypt, before devoting the bulk of his text to the development of various movements (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism) in India, concluding with relatively short chapters on China, Japan, and Tibet.

Egypt being included in this volume, while the Middle East is included in the succeeding volume on occidental mythology, shows that Campbell is not above glossing over the finer details in pursuit of making the case he wants to make. In this case, the second volume of Masks of God is where Campbell begins to make his argument that Eastern religion drives its adherents to turn away from the world, accepting one's place in the social strata while seeking to end the cycle of death and rebirth by detachment. That Campbell thinks Western religion drives its adherents to focus on what they can achieve with their single life, and is therefore ultimately superior to Eastern religion, isn't laid on super thick but is definitely obvious.

But what we get through that sometimes distasteful bent is a well-researched and interesting examination of the development of Eastern religion. The largest portion of the text is devoted to Buddhism and reading about how it developed, grew in India, and then was pushed out to China, Japan, and Tibet (with mutations in each culture that reflect its unique perspective) is genuinely compelling. The chapter regarding Tibet does not shy away from the atrocities committed against the monks there by the Chinese, but one of Campbell's strengths is that he's not afraid to be critical. He certainly has no problem puncturing the ideals that religions would like you to believe about them by discussing the historical realities of how they actually functioned.

There is a similar psychoanalytic frame of reference here as in the first volume, but it's not as prominent (probably because there's more substance here to work from than there was with the first) and so it's not as problematic. Indeed, this volume is superior to the first all around. It's still thick, and fact-dense, and reads like a textbook, but Oriental Mythology is a more rewarding read, both in information and readability (it's still very slow, though) than its antecedent.
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LibraryThing member Czrbr
Book Description: Harmondsworth, Middlesex UK: Penguin Books, 1962. Trade Paperback. As New/No Jacket as Issued. 12mo - over 6" - 7¾" tall. 561 pp.
LibraryThing member hailelib
This is the second volume of 'The Masks of God' and has a copyright date of 1962. Campbell begins by discussing the 'split' in the mythologies of the East and West and how this led to differences in worldview, culture, and ways of thinking right down to the twentieth century. He begins with the emergence of civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia and then moves east to the Indian subcontinent, China, and Japan. There is much exploration of how various peoples' ways of thinking about God, creation and man's place in the cosmos led to their culture's general characteristics.

Although Campbell's opus is nearly fifty years old, his ideas seem to have a lot in common with other reading I've been doing in the last couple of months by authors writing much more recently. I've also found that his work is much easier going for me than it was when I read the first volume. I think this reflects the fact that I've been reading a great deal in the areas of mythology and early history for the last eighteen months and so have a better foundation for understanding his writing. Recommended for those with a serious interest in Eastern mythology and religion.
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LibraryThing member alexanme
the space given to india versus china, japan is outrageous; and why even include tibet, w the space given to it?

this is not to mention the exclusion of so many other literary mythic cultures of (jfc) "the orient" (korea, vietnam, burma, thailand, mongolia being the major ones)

do i even have to call this orientalist? given the fucking title? but it is orientalist, just to b clear

god the reductionism and stereotyping is HORRIBLE, and all follows the colonial logics laid out by the likes of mircea eliade, jung, and durkheim; ofc, campbell lacks the analytic insight of any competent structuralist
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LibraryThing member saturnloft
Excellent information, not crazy about the delivery.
Really not crazy about it.

I remember liking the Masks of God series a lot more when I was a teenager, but on a recent 2nd run-through I found it somewhat less satisfying. It made me feel unclean for liking Campbell in the first place, actually.
For one thing, Oriental Mythology is replete with massive amounts of information and anecdotes concerning various Eastern religions, but Campbell makes it quite clear where his personal judgments reside. This is where Comparative Mythology becomes something more like "Competitive Mythology". Apparently some religions are simply better than others. Some are more sophisticated. Some are more mature. (According to Campbell, these would be the religions of the West.) And the man gets very patronizing when he describes some of the quaint 'Oriental' myths that fail to measure up, so to speak.

The part I liked: as usual, I did enjoy some of the material taken directly from sacred texts. Good stuff, although where Campbell takes his interpretations is often a different matter.

Note: This is also the volume where I invented the Joseph Campbell Masks of God drinking game.
(You are strongly advised not to try it. I'm fairly sure it leads to fatal alcohol poisoning.)
Anyway, it's fairly simple. Every time Joseph Campbell mentions one of the following, you must take a drink: The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler, Thomas Mann, or Nietzsche.*

One final thought: Joseph Campbell fervently fondled the words of great men (not women, never any women!) men like Nietzsche, Spengler, and company.. and he was NOT sorry. He was possibly their greatest fan. They are the glorious shining bricks in this pompous monolith of mythological dissection.
This series is the sort of thing that begs to be read aloud at your next DMV visit or on public transport of your choice. Make a fun game out of it. Who will beat you to death with their shoe first?

* For total obliteration, add James Joyce and Freud.
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